For years it was relegated to the graveyard of useless kitchen gadgetry. But now the slow cooker, that relic of the 1970s, is making a comeback.

If you were rooting through the kitchen cupboards over the Christmas holiday, you may well have come across a dusty squat brown pot lurking in a forgotten corner. The crock pot, as it was known, was the mainstay of many kitchens in the 1970s, responsible for such culinary triumphs as Hawaiian chicken and mixed vegetable goulash.

Now the slow cooker, as it's called these days, has shed its retro image and is back and bubbling away in the most modern kitchens. "The growth of the market recently has been phenomenal," says John Knight of Ultimate Products, a distributor of housewares. "In the last year it's been the fastest growing range of small kitchen appliances with sales up 15 per-cent". John Lewis and manufacturer Morphy Richards report big increases too.

The main appeal of a slow cooker is that you can switch it on in the morning, leave it safely simmering away and have a hot meal waiting for you when you get home. In fact, it's probably a more valuable kitchen gadget today than it was in the 1970s, when housewives still had the time on their hands to stand stirring a stew. It's also cheap to buy (prices start at £14.99 - cheaper than many saucepans) and economical to use - its electricity consumption is roughly that of a light bulb.

Slow cookers work best for dishes that benefit from extended cooking times such as soups, stews, casseroles, curries and boiled meats like beef and chicken. "You get far more control with dishes that need to cook very slowly" says celebrity chef Paul Rankin who has just brought out his own one. "Most people don't understand the braising process and let the food get dried out."

The downside is that there are a number of things they don't do so well or which take getting used to. Slow cookers can be cranky. Fish is easy to overcook. Pasta goes soggy. Cream will curdle so must be added at the last minute. Dried pulses, which a slow cooker handles very well, need to be cooked before they can be added.

When I put mine through its paces recently, I almost gave up because nothing seemed to happen for the first couple of hours. Barely a bubble disturbed the surface. But the point is that you're not supposed to watch over it like a mother hen but leave it to get on with the job instead. Resisting the temptation to lift the lid, I found by the time seven hours was up, I had a perfectly poached chicken and vegetables with some fabulously well-flavoured stock. A Moroccan lamb tagine was equally successful. I just had to skim off the fat at the end and adjust the seasoning - something you'd expect to do with a conventionally cooked stew

Not everyone, however, is convinced. "I did have one once but I never really got into the swing of using it" admits Lindsey Bareham, author of one-pot recipe book Just One Pot. "There's none of that enjoyable poking around and giving it the odd stir as you walk past." And Tricia Schofield, head of testing at the Good Housekeeping Institute, points out that with most models you have to heat all the ingredients to boiling point in a separate pan before you start - something you may not be gagging to do at 7.30 in the morning before you go off to work. "For some people, pressure cookers may be a better answer. You can cook a casserole or a curry in them in 20 minutes flat," she says.

Against that you get an incredible intensity of flavour from the slow cooking process that transforms even a run-of-the-mill chicken into a tasty one. "You can do something ridiculously simple and it comes out tasting good" says Rankin.

When it comes down to it, though, I suspect that the acquisition of a slow cooker is less about convenience than comfort. "I think there's no doubt that being able to produce a hot meal as soon as you get home assuages a feeling of guilt among many working women" says psychologist Dr David Lewis, author of The Soul of the New Consumer. "It harks back to a time they may not even remember themselves but which exists as a folk memory - when mother was at home and there was always a hot meal ready on the table. It's better than a ready meal from some anonymous factory in the north of England." (omega)

Paul Rankin's slow cooker, £34.99, is available from Robert Dyas shops nationwide, tel: 01372 361 444

Vegetable chowder

Serves 4
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 medium leek and carrot, washed and diced
2 sticks of celery, diced
100g/4oz savoy cabbage, shredded
100g/4oz green beans, cut into 1 cm (1/2in) lengths
400g can chick-peas
1.5 litres/2 pints of vegetable stock or water
400g can chopped tomatoes
1tbs tomato purée
1 bouquet garni
2tbs extra virgin olive oil
50g/2oz parmesan cheese, finely grated
4tbs roughly chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Scatter the onion, garlic, leeks, carrots, celery, cabbage, green beans and chick-peas into the slow cooker. Pour in the stock and tomatoes and stir in the tomato purée. Pop the bouquet garni in and season well. Cover with the lid and set to cook on low for 3-4 hours. Serve drizzled with the oil and a scattering of parmesan, parsley and pepper.

Irish stew

Serves 4-6
1.3kg/3lb lamb neck chops or 900g/2lb diced lean neck
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled and roughly sliced
4 medium potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
1.2 litres/2 pints lamb stock or water
Leaves from 1 sprig fresh thyme
5tbs roughly chopped parsley
Salt and ground white pepper
Trim the meat of any excess fat. Layer it with the onions, carrots and potatoes in the slow cooker. Mix the stock with the thyme, salt and a pinch of white pepper and pour over.

Cover and cook on the low setting of the slow cooker for 5 hours or until the meat is very tender. Ladle into serving bowls and sprinkle with the parsley to serve.

Creamy chicken and vegetable stew

Serves 4-6

295g can condensed cream of mushroom soup
295g can condensed cream of chicken soup
100ml/3fl oz dry white wine
125ml/4 fl oz) crème fraîche (or whipping cream)
6 chicken breasts, cut into 4cm (1/2in) cubes
1 large onion, roughly chopped
3 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 red peppers, quartered and quartered again
100g/4oz button mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix the soups, wine and crème fraîche together in the slow cooker. Fill one of the empty soup cans with water and pour in. Stir in the chicken, onion, celery, potatoes, peppers and mushrooms and pop the lid on. Cook on a low setting for 4-5 hours. Adjust seasoning and serve.

Curried lamb shanks

Serves 4

2tbs vegetable oil
4 lamb shanks, trimmed of any excess fat
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5cm/2in piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2tbs curry powder
400g can chopped tomatoes
100ml/3fl oz natural yoghurt
3 tbs roughly chopped coriander
2 spring onions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Add the oil to a really hot frying pan and sear the lamb for 4-5 minutes until golden. Place in the slow cooker and scatter the onion, garlic, ginger and curry powder over. Pour in the tomatoes, season generously and stir through.

Cover and cook on the low setting for 6-8 hours until the sauce is thick and the lamb almost falling off the bone. To serve, place a spoonful of the sauce in the centre of each plate and put a shank on top. Drizzle the yoghurt on the lamb followed by the coriander, spring onions and pepper.